Posts Tagged ‘Lanie’

One brave turtle vs. the world

monarch eggsWhen I was asked to write the books for the 2010 Doll of the Year, American Girl flew me to Wisconsin to brainstorm about the theme–something related to saving the earth. American Girl talks about keeping things “girl sized.” As I searched my brain cells for images of myself as a girl Lanie’s age, spending my days outside in Ethiopia, what came popping back most vividly were plants, frogs, and butterflies. This is a picture of monarch eggs–just one of the things I ended up learning a lot about as I wrote my story.

When I was Lanie’s age, I spent part of the year with those plants and frogs and butterflies in Maji but part of the year in boarding school in Addis Ababa, where I entertained myself here on this big campus riding my bike or pretending I was a horse running, swishing through the grass..campus

As I started doing my research for Lanie’s story, I discovered kids outside…making a difference for the earth: creating backyard habitat, doing citizen science and becoming part of the team to save monarch butterflies. We start with what fascinates kids–which is what I love about Toby. 

Toby Cover3Here’s my interview with VCFA grad, Stacy A. Nyikos. When she was a student at Vermont College, we connected as Midwest writers. But–as I tell young writers–being a reader or a writer means you can go anywhere in your mind.

Q: You and I met a Vermont College of the Fine Arts when we were sort of neighbors–Kansas and Oklahoma. My latest book is set in Kansas, but Toby is definitely not set in Oklahoma. Will you share a bit of what it’s like to write a story that isn’t set in your own back yard?

A: True Confession? I’ve been sneaking out of my own backyard every since I was little. It all started when I was three. My mom was busy. I was bored. And my parents were big proponents of making your own fun. So I put on my best (slightly wrinkled) dress and followed the neighbor boy to the local high school. I had an amazing adventure! And after they reached my mom and she came to get me, I got to go to preschool. I guess my parents decided to help direct that whole “making your own fun” thing. Preschool was A LOT more fun than my own backyard. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn out of it so often. I know there’s an adventure waiting for me somewhere.

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Q: Ever since writing Lanie, I’ve had a great fondness for books that relate to kids making a difference by connecting with the earth. Is it just me thinking that Toby is another one of those books?

A: You nailed it! Toby is another one of those “connect to change” kind of stories. Kids love animals. And they’re so curious. My hope is that the story of a sea turtle’s adventures and struggles will create an emotional interconnection, and kids will cherish and care for these animals in that big-hearted, no holds barred way that kids have.

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Q: It would be fun to see Toby paired with my friend Mary Casanova’s Utterly Otterly Day. I was with her when she was struggling with the rhymes for that manuscript. Was it hard to find your Toby rhymes? Do you have one you MOST love to read aloud?Utterly otterly

A: Rhyming is a game of literary chess. Finding the right way to express an emotion, a situation, an action is already a challenge, but to do that AND make it rhyme. I got kinda Shakespearean on my family some days, talking in rhyme. I guess that’s like an actor never breaking character, but I think it got a little old for my kids. Still, my favorite stanza is still the first. There is that anticipation of action, followed by fun action.

 

In a sandy little nest

With a happy little shout

Toby broke apart his shell

And…

Kerploppled headfirst out.

Q: A turtle’s quest for the sea and an author’s quest to get books into the hands of readers strike me as somewhat similar. What’s the most fun thing you’ve done or are doing as you dodge your own birds and crabs and crocs?

A: Connecting with readers is the most fun thing I do. I talk shop with librarians and book buyers at conferences, such as BEA, coming right up–May 28 – June 1. This year I’ll be there signing for Toby!  Stop by and see me. I do signings at bookstores, such as Full Circle Books, my local indie store.  And then there are school visits. I love the energy, enthusiasm and wide-eyed optimism that kids bring to the world each day. If I could see the world through a kids’ eyes every day, it would be a wonderful life. To them, the world is filled with adventure and possibility. So yeah, connecting with readers, that not only keeps me going, it makes my day.

Q: I was charmed by the illustrations in Toby. Tell us a bit of story about how words and text found each other and got so beautifully meshed.

A: Shawn Sisneros is one of my most favorite illustrators. Shawn studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. We work as a team, which isn’t always the case for authors and illustrators. I love it because Shawn makes my writing better. He’ll tell me when a passage isn’t working, or that I’ve got too much illustratable action in a scene, can I pare it down to the most important. And it works vice versa. When he’s having trouble with a scene, we talk through it, looking for the most illustratable moment and how to make it happen. And then there’s the joy of seeing Shawn take my words and make his own visual story out of them. The text gets better through his interpretation and becomes a new story with more depth and discovery.

Q: Did you take the picture book semester while you were at VCFA? Did you work on picture books there? So many VCFA students are working on YA novels that I’m tickled to see two fun new picture books by a VCFA grad! ???????????????????????????????

Q: I almost took the picture book semester, but I chickened out! I didn’t think I’d be able to write THAT many picture books in a six month stretch. Picture books are my guilty pleasure. If I’m knee deep in a year-long novel, and some plot line or character is giving me trouble and I don’t know how to go any further, that’s usually when a picture book idea comes to me. I divert from the sodden path I’m on, work on the pb, getting off some pent up creative energy, and usually, by the time I’m done, have a working draft for a new picture book and a solution to the novel problem. So, I don’t ever know when a picture book is going to pop by and play, but it’s fun every time they do.

Thanks again to Stacy Nyikos for appearing.  For other stops on the Toby blog tour please check http://www.stacyanyikos.com/blog.html

 

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Starting as a clueless mess

The beginning of my rootedness wasn’t pretty.

old family (2)I lived in Portland, Oregon until I was two years old (look at the daffodils behind us) with a good and beautiful princess of an older sister and (eventually) a younger sister. But after my parents moved us to Ethiopia, I never lived in Portland again…until a couple of years ago.

1 blackberry massWe moved into a house that had been a rental most of its recent life, and the back yard was a mass of weeds including this blackberry thicket. 1 blackberryI loved trotting out to pick fresh blackberries.  I didn’t yet know–in the words of Oregon.gov–“Armenian blackberry is the most widespread and economically disruptive of all the noxious weeds in western Oregon.”

spidermenI’d had a vegetable garden before. When my kids were little, I wanted to share with them the things that had brought me joy as a kid–including my dad’s love of storytelling and tagging along with my dad to the garden in Ethiopia where he rhapsodized about the taste of dirt on a raw potato. Writing Lanie for American Girl, though, had gotten me interested for the first time in how plants could make a difference in your own back yard. I wanted to plant native plants. And I wanted to experiment–not do research and make meticulous plans. Performance anxiety, don’t you know?

1 bare spotThe back yard had those blackberries, ivy on the fence, a big bare spot, and several stumps. So I mostly started in the front–with some herbs and a few things my big sister (see beautiful princess above) shared with me.

Here’s how much I was starting at the total bottom:

–I didn’t know to watch my yard for sun and shade and not plant sun-loving plants in shade or vice versa.

–I lovingly spread wood sorrel because I thought it was charming–not knowing it spreads both underground and through pods that build up pressure and then burst, sending the seed flying several feet (and spreading the wood sorrel everywhere).

(Read more from original site: Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis Stricta), Lawn Weed Identification & Control http://www.better-lawn-care.com/wood-sorrel.html#ixzz30hL5U8zV)

–I was ignorant about and therefore tolerant of a few other yard thugs, too.

–I thought Portland was rainy year-round.

–I didn’t know there were water loving herbs and dry-loving herbs, and it wasn’t smart to plant them in the same small spot.

–I couldn’t recognize what was coming up in my yard the first spring including…grass.

–I BOUGHT MINT and planted it.  Yikes!

Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, “Many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life”–and tells of a friend who asked what she meant when she said, “The potatoes are up.” When Kingsolver explained, her friend said, “Wow. I ever knew a potato had a plant part.” When I was working on Anna Was Here, I knew many of its readers would never have set foot on a farm.

Anna+was+HereKingsolver says, “Now it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore.”

I knew about potatoes because of my dad’s vegetable garden when I was growing up in Ethiopia.

But I was still starting from scratch with anything but vegetables–and the beginning wasn’t pretty.

 

 

Happy Earth Day

Ethiopia+78Earth Day seems like a good time to start my new blog thread…going from being a somewhat restless traveler to putting down roots. Literally.

It all goes back to Maji, Ethiopia.Ethiopia+77Since there was no winter in Maji, my sisters and I spent huge chunks of every day outside, exploring. This is an old picture that’s marked “4000 foot sheer drop off.” That was Maji. Breath-taking and stomach-dropping.

Ethiopia+76My sisters and I would tag along after our dad as he went to to one waterfall to check on the ram he had installed to pump water up to our house–it seemed to inevitably get clogged with leaves–or to another waterfall to check on the mill he had installed to grind grain for the community. We made up a game of Water Babies (which I wove into my novel Jakarta Missing) with the curled fern tips we’d collect on the way down and send swirling down the river on leaf or wood boats.

Ethiopia+82Except on days when fog rolled up the valley, this was the view from the back yard. We made up complicated stories using flowers and frogs and ant lions and lizards…all right there for the touching.

02420And we loved Dad’s garden. I’m reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and this made me laugh…and nod. “Underneath our stylish clothing it seems we are still animals, retaining some vestigial desire to sniff around the water hole and the food supply.”

Somehow in years living in the U.S., where the world around me often felt unfamiliar and distant, a lot of those outside genes had gone dormant. But when I moved to Portland, they bubbled forth.IMG_0196This spring, I’ve been digging a rain garden.

I’m going to write for a while about discovering a back yard. And yes, my writing is intertwined. Both Lanie and Anna have been along for the ride.

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Other people, Barbara Kingsolver says, “fast or walk long pilgrimages to honor the spirit of what they believe makes our world whole and lovely. If we gardeners can, in the same spirit, put our heels to the shovel, kneel before a trench holding tender roots…who’s to make the call between ridiculous ad reverent?”

 

 

 

My backyard skin

Are we inexorably drawn to the things we knew deeply and warmly when we were little?

arialIn Maji, Ethiopia, my backyard wasn’t neat or cozy.  It was full of frogs and bugs and plants that we pulled apart and stitched together in our games.  It stretched outward to that path that led to a waterfall, the one my sisters and I ran up and down telling stories abut the curled fern tips we called our water babies.  We were outside all the time.

1 bek751All too soon, my kids were young gardeners and our back yard had a big vegetable garden that gobbled up hours of spring and summer.

1 weeds (1)When I moved to Portland, I was less interested in a big vegetable garden than in plant choices that would support the lives of bees and butterflies and birds. I turned a patch of grass in front into ground cover and started looking around the scruffy back yard and trying to identify weeds.  This one, I thought, was a charmer.  That was before it started sending its roots crawling and its seeds flinging everywhere.  Oops!

(I must say I haven’t given up vegetables completely.  I’ve grown tomatoes and lettuce and rhubarb and some champion kale here.  This year it’s flowering–still good to eat.)

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Last year, I was a weed dabbler.  This year, I’m obsessed.

In my quest to identify the Big Bad Bully weeds, I found a form on the web and filled it out.  This week, the Columbia Land Trust and Portland Audubon Society will send a volunteer to look at my back yard, help me identify the worst invaders, and come up with a plan for better backyard habitat.

???????????????????????????????I do already have BETTER backyard habitat than I once did.  But one of the big offenders–ivy–sprawls over the fence between our neighbors and us and climbs the neighbor’s trees.  I’d have to take care of that to even have a Silver Certified Backyard Habitat.  A Gold or Platinum means people have “taken heroic measures to remove invasive weeds, increased stormwater management on-site, and created beautiful habitat for local wildlife.”

???????????????????????????????(What is this weed??  I’ll find out!)

I am YEARS from silver.  Now I know Lanie was probably years from silver, too, even if I did give her a great yard.  But my outside genes pull me into the back yard almost every day identifying all kinds of weeds–and looking at them in my neighbors’ yards, too.  Alas.

???????????????????????????????I now know bindweed and toadflax (sigh…I thought it was snapdragon and had welcomed it) and pokeweed (can’t believe we let two specimens get HUGE and grow fat, fleshy roots), and weedy fennel (I proudly asked a master gardener at the farmers’ market what this aromatic herb was) and henbane and chickweed and a bunch of others.

???????????????????????????????And here’s the hopeful thing.  I spaded up a bunch of crabgrass and other scruff in this spot by the street and planted a few steppables last year.  (Have I said how much I love steppables??)

???????????????????????????????A year later, it already looks like this.  Friends of Trees also planted that tree, by the way.

maji514The best thing is that I feel like that shirtless kid again, loving the feel of the earth on my skin.

Come on, Mother Nature, give peace a chance

On Saturday, I was honored to speak at a young author’s conference in southern Washington, and was it ever special. These days, it takes almost heroic effort to pull off such things–teachers, parents, kids all choosing to be part of a reading and writing event instead of all the other things tugging at them. On the way home, my sister Cathy and I stopped at Hortlandia. I wanted to look for native Oregon plants. Writing the Lanie books woke me up to what a difference we can make with native plants that support native insects eaten by native birds–and now I have a garden to play with.

1 weeds (2)Alas and alack, one of the plants I bought shows up on some lists of noxious and maybe even invasive plants, which sent me back to trying to learn more about the weeds in my back yard–like this one.  More and more I realize that the things in my back yard are unwanted.  I’m learning all kinds of new vocabulary from “vigorous” to “pushy” to “thug.”  My weekend reading made me see in a new way that invasive plants are crowding out Oregon native wildflowers and ground cover because they are just so bold and strong and overpowering, and I should be doing my bit to not add to the problem.

Eeek.

???????????????????????????????I like moss.  I’m happy to live with a lot of things other people call weeds.  I’m having fun playing with the stones I dig out of my dirt.  But a lot of the weeds hanging around my back yard are the really bad ones that will bully other plants around–and now I know I need to learn more about weed identification and weed pulling.

Come on!  Why can’t at least some of the weeds that have invited themselves in be nice native plants that will behave themselves?  Why are ALL of them the bullies?

t189The only hopeful thought of the day is a metaphorical one.  My friend Ann Porter in ND introduced me to Betty who grew up in Ethiopia without all the coaxing and tending of reading habits that goes on in the United States.  No reading teacher.  No library.  No tutor.  No ELL teacher.  No special stories crafted just for her interests…and yet that seed of reading fell, anyway, and she ended up loving to read…and her reading opened doors for her to eventually get an advanced degree…and now she’s running a marathon so that kids in Ethiopia can have more. books.

Bertuan KebedeThis teacher of a new Ethiopia Reads school explained to an interviewer that she has made it a mission to protect young girls from the practice of forced marriage. “Being a woman in this society, you aren’t supposed to speak. Being a teacher, I now have a voice” Girls who are not in school are frequently forced to marry as young as 12 years old. Kololo opened this school year with children as old as 12 years old starting in kindergarten and first grade. “I’m helping the girls by empowering them. If they are educated, they can be heard.”

This week, I’ll fly out to Denver…and from there to Kansas and NYC where Ethiopia Reads volunteers have organized events to help us keep going on our efforts.  I’ll leave the garden and yard weeds behind for a while and think about reading seeds that, thankfully, grow in the strangest places.

Makers all

DSC03634My smart, wonderful writer of a daughter is in a PhD program in the English department at Purdue University, and she reported the irritation literature scholars and others felt when Purdue tagged itself as “makers all,” in honor of its strong hands-on programs in engineering and the like. I did have the phrase ringing in my ears this week, though.

I am completely not crafty except, perhaps at times, in the Machiavellian sense.  But one of my sisters and I decided to make stepping stones.  Here’s my result!

When my sisters and I were little, Ethiopian Airlines made one stop a week on the savannah below Maji, our misty mountain home.  The savannah was hot with crackling grass…pretty much as my brother and I captured through words in Water Hole Waiting.  That’s the thing.  I capture sensations in words.

WW cover smallI’ve been amazed in auctions for VCFA or Ethiopia Reads at the writers who can also do delicate and astounding things with their hands.

But on the hot savannah, embedded in the sandy soil amidst the crackling grasses, were stones–like jewels, like dazzling glass bits, like treasures from an old tale.  While my sisters and I were waiting for my dad to finish up his business with EAL personnel, we braved the blazing sun to find them.

wwuhaDon’t we look hot as we get ready to get out of the plane?  About the only shade was under its wing.

So when my sister saw stepping stones with bits of embedded glass, I just had to try making one.  It called to me with a siren song.  Since I am, however, NOT a craft person, I discovered–thanks to my sweetie’s pointing it out–that the shell I embedded was either going to get crushed or poke someone’s foot.

My web hunt about stepping stones led me to other people’s crafty ways.  I know of Etsy but had never tried ordering things.  While I experiment with stepping stones, though, I decided I had to order one that could actually be walked upon.  This weekend, in rainy Portland, I set it in a spot I’m trying to reclaim from the grassy wilds.

DSC03639My making has to do with polishing and twisting and shaping and tapping on words to see what effects I can create.  Apparently, though, my garden is now compelling enough to make me, too, one of the makers all.

Lanie would be proud!

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Christmas ho ho ho

Christmas joy–in the house shared by the teacher and nurse who lived in Maji–the only other English-speakers besides our family–and more recently!Christmas morningEllemae decorating

1 Christmas739Christmas elf